Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pondo Stitch

   Free Beading Tutorial
Mpondo Neckpiece; Xhosa Headband   Photo: Nick Kap
      My good friend, Nick Kap, is from South Africa and has been collecting and studying #beadwork from the indigenous people there since the 1970s. During his early days of collecting he noticed an unusual looking stitch in photographs of Mpondo tribesmen wearing tribal beadwork. A few years into our friendship, Nick shared with me an image of this stitch and I encouraged him to share it with beaders by publishing an article in one of the popular beading magazines in the U.S. He agreed and we embarked on a long journey of vetting the stitch and setting it into an ethnographically based context in order to properly credit its origins and uses. To make sure we were absolutely accurate, we collected additional beadwork and Nick researched every publication he could get his hands on (including his own collection of out of print books, photographs, and personal communications with his friend, Stephen Long - the recognized expert in the field). Nick verified the pathway by unraveling a damaged headband in his collection from the Herschell area of the Eastern Cape. I created a sample project based on a traditional piece I purchased online. When we were finished, we sent the manuscript and project off to Beadwork magazine who had expressed great interest in publishing it. That was in 2005.

The Bead Book, June 2007
Photo: Sue Mandel
      The article was not published until April of 2007. Suffice it to say, the project that was eventually published was a bracelet which was not entirely accurate in its pathway as a result of editorial license that altered the way we had originally woven it. All references to the historical and technical aspects of the work were also dropped. On the bright side, Nick had recently met the editor of The Bead Book, a South African beading magazine, who agreed to publish an article on our behalf. Nick and I set about customizing our work for that market and submitted that piece for a publication date of June 2007. 

Pondo Stitch: Is It African Circle Stitch?

      After the April 2007 Beadwork issue hit the stands, we were contacted by #DianeFitzgerald who was working on her book on Zulu beadwork which was scheduled to be published by Interweave Press in the Fall of 2007. Diane wrote to us asking about a pathway she had derived from work done by her two friends, Stephany Hornblow and Vera Grey. They had found a neckpiece with this stitch at a museum in England and had deciphered it from a photograph and published it in their bead society newsletter. Diane had recognized a redundancy in their pathway, corrected it, and wanted to include this stitch in her book. Since she did not have a physical example of the work to unravel, she queried if we'd actually verified the stitch, which we had done. We explained to her the differences between the traditional weave and what appeared in the magazine:

"The stitch was popular with the Mpondo and since we identified it first in an Mpondo artifact, we named it accordingly. For the magazine article we modified the stitch by adding a picot edging and the editors re-oriented the bracelet pattern to match the orientation of the flower. The original pattern was woven horizontally."

 The name they had given the stitch was African Circle Stitch.

Unravelling the Herschell Headband
Photo: Nick Kap
      Since that time there have been many questions regarding this stitch. Pondo Stitch and African Circle Stitch are two names used to describe the same technique. While there is evidence the Zulu occasionally used this stitch in their earlier work (Mid 19th century to early 20th century), it appears to have disappeared from their repertoire after that. It was however still in use as late as the 1960's amongst some of the Xhosa-speaking people of the Eastern Cape, most notably the Mpondo tribe. As far as being related to right angle weave - it is unlikely. It is a lovely netting stitch which we know from having done a comparative trial of similar stitches from the region. Pondo is also not traditionally woven using a four bead picot edging - that was a design variation we added to the #Beadwork project. It is also typically woven horizontally and not vertically, as noted above. 

Variations On A Theme

Stitch Comparison   Photo: Sue Mandel
A number of variations of #PondoStitch have cropped up online since our original publication. We have found them equally interesting and disheartening because many are nothing like the stitch. Notably is a version in which a long path is taken to secure each new addition of beads to the prior row and a second pass is added for stability. We recognize that the adaptations, while very creative, are due to an incomplete working knowledge of the stitch - specifically, that proper tension must be held to secure the beads; that a doubled waxed thread should be used to replace the traditional sinew that was once used; and that the leading edge was often stabilized by attaching it to another material. It should also be noted that no variation in bead sizing was traditionally used - again, that was a design adaptation created to appeal to magazine subscribers. Because incorrect "free versions" of this pathway are now being offered online under the heading of "Pondo Stitch", we have decided to counter by posting the accurate pathway as was first described in our original manuscript. We hope this will clear up any confusion as to what Pondo stitch actually is.

Modern Nguni Neckpiece
Photo: Sue Mandel
And so... the link to the Pondo Stitch tutorial is below. If you want to know anything about the historical and ethnographic aspect of this stitch, you can contact Nick by leaving a comment in the comments section and I will make sure he gets it.  He did a beautiful job researching this stitch and writing it up - particularly with respect to the South African beadwork heritage.